TO UNDERSTAND “THE GODFATHER” ONE MUST READ PUZO’S NOVEL 

THE GODFATHER (1969) By Mario Puzo

REVIEWED By STEVEN TRAVERS

In a short period of time, we will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Godfather’s winning of the Best Picture Oscar, along with its 11 Academy Award nominations, in 1973. When Marlon Brando won for Best Actor he had a Native American woman accept his Oscar out of sympathy for Indian rights. The film, described by Paramount’s head of production Robert Evans as a “cultural phenomenon,” was just that. Generally considered to this day to be the greatest movie of all time, it broke box office records and set new standards of distribution methods. It launched the careers of Francis Ford Coppola, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton; saved the careers of Evans and Brando; and revived Paramount, a studio that had fallen to dead last place just a few short years before.

The Godfather has spurred countless imitators and revival festivals, created an entire lexicon and genre, but for those who truly love and study the film, to understand its plot devices and the motivations of its characters, one must read and really grasp the 1969 novel by Mario Puzo.

Puzo was a struggling novelist who specialized in family drama, drawing on his Italian heritage. His books had tangential association with the Mafia, but he generally gave that subject wide clearance, just as he had during his youth. He grew up around mobsters in New York’s Little Italy, but avoided “the life,” becoming educated, a man of letters instead. His books, however, failed to sell and he was desperate. On top of that, he found himself drawn back to the mob because he owed money to gambling interests controlled by them.

He decided to write about La Casa Nostra, filling his novel with descriptions not only of violence and lurid sex, but also family drama. Inspired by William Shakespeare’s King Lear, he featured a “king,” the head of a New York crime family, with three sons: the eldest a tempestuous hot head, too short-tempered to take over the family; the second a weakling not strong enough to lead; and the third, perfectly suited by temperament and brains, but utterly unwilling to follow in the family business.

The novel flew off Puzo’s typewriter onto the page, as if willed by God to be written. Early on Evans heard of Puzo’s novel in the form of a film treatment called “Mafia,” and optioned it, paying Puzo enough to get out from his gambling debts and live comfortably until the book could be published. Paramount was beginning to ascend after Rosemary’s Mary, but despite the option, there was little great interest in turning the book into a film. However Evans saw something in Puzo’s early drafts, and worked with the writer to create “movie moments” in the novel in case it ever was produced. When it stayed atop the New York Times Best Seller list for weeks it demanded to be produced.

The book came out in 1969, a time of great literary achievement in which some of the best books ever written were being published. These books were new and different, and fed the cultural zeitgeist of the times. Writers like Tom Wolfe, Philip Roth and Hunter S. Thompson were creating what was called the New Journalism, feeding the New Hollywood that Evans symbolized. The audience tastes had changed, and these new artistes were the ones changing it. 

That said, Puzo chose not to write about hippies, drugs, the sexual revolution, or Vietnam, but rather about the drug trade after World War II. Puzo was always coy about who his characters were modeled after, but there is no doubt his book was modeled after true events from 1900 to the 1950s. This incapsulated Sicily before the rise of Benito Mussolini; the Italian immigrant experience of Ellis Island; the rise of the Mafia courtesy of Prohibition in the 1920s; consolidation of the families into a “commission” as orchestrated by Lucky Luciano in the 1930s; the drug trade of the 1940s; and the increasing attention of the FBI and Senate in the 1950s. 

Many suspected the main character, Don Vito Corleone, was based on Luciano. More likely (and to Brando most definitely) he was based on Frank Costello. A key character of the book, singer Johnny Fontane, was unquestionably inspired by events surrounding the life of Frank Sinatra, but Puzo did not intend to make his character a replica of “Ol’ Blue Eyes.”    

The reason the book needs to be read in order to truly understand the movie concerns itself with the motivation of the characters. Why did The Don order the horse’s head to be cut off and placed in the movie producer’s bed? Why did Sonny Corleone pursue an affair with Lucy Mancini? Why did The Don hold his cards so close to his chest when discussing business matters? Why was Luca Brasi so feared? Why did Paulie “sell out” The Godfather? Many of these secrets were not revealed in the film because it was long enough as it was, but also because many movie goers of the era had read the book and understood these key concepts. 

The book opens like the movie in “modern” times, 1945-46, with the wedding of The Don’s only daughter, Connie, to Carlo Rizzi, a handsome friend of Sonny’s, who hails from Las Vegas. The wedding day reveals much. 

Don Vito Corleone is wealthy, respected and feared, but he is also loved. He lives with his family in a “compound” large enough to house all his children, their wives, their kids, and a large crew of “soldiers,” in Long Beach, Long Island. This is an interesting aside. The Corleone’s have, like much of post-war America, retreated from the crime of the cities to live in the suburbs. The fact that this is where Coppola grew up was a coincidence but nonetheless may have helped convince him to direct after his initial decision not to. Long Beach, Puzo informs us, is the safest city in America.  

A tradition, explained in detail by Puzo, is that the father of a Sicilian bride must honor any request formally brought to him on her wedding day. A local baker, with much affection for The Don, has made a beautiful wedding cake and desires that a young Italian soldier, allowed to work in his bakery after capture during the war, is being re-patriated back to Italy. Can the Don arrange for him to stay so he can marry the baker’s daughter? An easy enough request. The Don agrees and tells his consigliere, Tom Hagen, to give this assignment to a “Jew Congressman in another district.”

Then comes Amerigo Bonasera, the undertaker. He hates coming to Corleone, because he fears him and does not wish to be in his debt. Puzo masterfully weaves the present events in with back story. We learn in excruciating detail what happened to Bonasera’s daughter, a pretty young girl infatuated with a local neighbor boy, “not Italian,” as if that explains everything. At first the fellow was a gentleman. Bonasera and his wife realize they have moved to America and must accept the fact their daughter might fall in love with a non-Italian.

Puzo describes the boys and their predatory behavior. They hang out at a local bar where many young women come in looking for a pick-up. They take many of these girls out of the bar, usually to their car, and see women as sluts and whores to be used for their pleasure.

Then one day the boy and one of his friends take the undertaker’s daughter in a car ride with the express desire to have their way with her. They ply her with liquor, but she resists. In keeping her honor, she receives a terrible beating from the boys. She is hospitalized and the boys have family connections in the legal system, receiving “suspended sentences.” 

Corleone is unsure how to handle Bonasera’s request, which he takes umbrage at because the undertaker has never extended the hand of friendship, nor has his wife ever invited The Don’s wife to their home for a cup of coffee. He agrees to fulfill Bonasera’s request, but the book reveals that his strategy on what to do took study and detail.

Corleone’s operatives scout the boys, mainly their habit of getting drunk in local bars, from which they pick up floozies. When Corleone learns that they are local “whore mongers,” his sense of propriety and morality is upset. He is in fact a very upright, Old World man; faithful to his wife, not prone to drunkenness, and despite his profession, an adherent of strict Catholicism. 

He therefore gives the nod to his henchman to beat the boys up, but not to kill them. They are to be made a demonstration of, not just to gain revenge for Bonasera’s daughter, but as a warning not to treat Italian girls as easy sex targets. 

Then along comes Johnny Fontane. He is a world famous singer who lives in Hollywood, where he is married to a movie star, who he divorced his wonderful first wife for. Johnny sings marvelous love ballads for Connie and Carlo. It is obvious from the descriptions of the author that Fontane’s style, sense of timing and appeal to women matches that of Frank Sinatra.

Johnny comes to his Godfather with a wedding day request, although he sees no way it can be fulfilled as it appears too late. His voice is gone, perhaps the most tell-tale sign he might be based on Sinatra, since Frank’s voice went bad for a time, leading him to a movie career.

Johnny tells his Godfather that he is up for a part with a big Hollywood movie producer, Jack Woltz. The film is a war epic, resembling From Here to Eternity, and Johnny would not need to act, just play himself. This is straight out of the Sinatra story. Sinatra flew to Africa, where his sex pot wife, Ava Gardner, was filming Ernest Hemingway’s Mocambo. He convinced her to fly back to the States in the middle of shooting in order to “beg” the producer of From Here to Eternity to cast her husband. The stories, rumors and legends evoked by what Ava, one of the most beautiful, not to mention one of the lustiest women in Hollywood history, did to assure Sinatra the part have been tales told out of school for decades. 

There will be an Ava Gardner-type character in The Godfather novel, but not in this context. In the movie the film is set to shoot in a few days, but in the novel Corleone needs more time to determine the proper course of action to take in getting Woltz to agree to cast his Godson Fontane. 

He sends Hagen to Hollywood where he is invited to Woltz’s palatial home. This is where Hagen sees something very disturbing, mainly a young girl, 12 or 13, beautifully coiffed, made up and dressed as a sex object, presented by her “stage mother” to Woltz, who has his way with the kid, leaving her face a messy splotch of lipstick and semen. Finished with this, the girl is whisked away and Hagen sits down for cocktails and dinner with Woltz, where the producer tells him the famous story about how Fontane stole one of his “proteges,” who Puzo writes was a girl the same age as the poor girl Hagen just saw, when she came under Woltz’s “employ.” 

In the novel, Puzo describes how when the girl finally became older, she began to date Fontane, and left Woltz not to make him look “ridiculous,” but because she realized how horribly she had been treated, raped in fact by a man with power over her. When Fontane learns of this he hates Woltz and encourages her to leave. In fact, while she falls madly in love with Fontane, he treats her with respect, more like a kid sister than a hot lover.

The original cut of The Godfather does not explain any of this. A later “director’s cut,” which appeared on TV a few times in the early 2000s but apparently has not been aired again, briefly shows a girl (possibly played by Diane Lane?) being manhandled by a matron upstairs as Hagen observes. In the original film a girl named Janie hugs Woltz at the studio, thanking him for casting her, and apparently Coppola felt these visuals were all that was needed for wise guy audiences who had read the book to connect the dots to Woltz’s pedarist ways.

Just as Corleone was appalled that American men felt entitled to treat young Italian girls as whores, he was even more angered that a man of power, in charge of many people, would abuse his power and do so much damage to innocent girls in his charge. This gives him the motivation to order the extreme action of cutting off a race horse’s head and putting it in the producer’s bed.

We learn of Luca Brasi, introduced in the film reciting his thank you to The Don for inviting him to his daughter’s wedding. His backstory is told by Michael Corleone to his girlfriend, Kay Adams. In the book Puzo goes into detail. Certainly the part in which Luca holds a bandleader down while The Don makes him “an offer he can’t refuse” mirrors what mobsters did to help Sinatra out of his contract with Tommy Dorsey. 

But the film, while hinting at it, never explicitly demonstrates why Luca is so fearsome. The book does. Among numerous examples cited is one in which Luca had a relationship with an Irish girl, who becomes pregnant. Luca is so enraged at the prospect of his Sicilian blood mixed with the Irish that he steals the baby and throws it into a furnace. A maid in the building aware of what Luca did says that her Christian faith is so strong she cannot wish any human being go to hell with the exception of Luca Brasi.

We also learn of Michael and Kay’s back story. Michael is the youngest son, but very bright. He signs up to serve in World War II, where he becomes a hero in the South Pacific. He also attends Dartmouth, where he meets Kay, the genteel Yankee daughter of a Protestant New Hampshire pastor. 

Michael’s passionate love letters are all read by the pastor and his wife before being re-sealed. When Kay expresses shock at this, her parents calmly explain that they were merely doing their parental duty, making sure their daughter was not getting involved with a gangster. Only after meeting Michael, learning of his gentle manner, true love for their daughter, his intelligence, Ivy League education and abject desire not to join the family business, do they consent to let the relationship continue. They even rebuff attempts by the New York police trying to gather information about the gangster’s son.

The film does show some of Vito Corleone’s upbringing, but the sequel is far more explanatory, with Robert DeNiro portraying the rise of the young Don based on Puzo’s book: a young, seemingly “dumb” mute, sent to America to escape the clutches of the Mafia boss in Corleone who killed his parents and brother; his being named after his home town because of a clerical error on Ellis Island; his early associations; his marriage and birth of his children in New York; and rise to the top of the underworld. He is a man who provides services to his people; services the courts and police are unable to provide.

Mute as a young man, Corleone learns to keep his mouth shut and not reveal what he is thinking, especially in matters of business. Unlike other mobsters he does not cheat on his wife. He is a strict Catholic in most ways, devoted to his family. When Kay Adams gets to know Don Vito’s wife, she demonstrates a desire to convert to Catholicism herself. Mrs. Corleone tells her she goes to Mass every day to pray for her husband’s mortal soul after the things he must do in his business, so he does not end up “down there.”

Page 27 of the novel was famously read by adolescent boys because it provided the nearest thing to pornography at that time. This involves the affair between Sonny Corleone and Lucy Mancini. Sonny is a hot head, happy to engage in violence, who “makes his bones” early in his career. He is also famously endowed. All the girls are crazy about him and want to “try him out” because of his manhood, which he lustily agrees to. When he marries a nice neighbor girl, she almost passes out when she sees his size, and when she learns he is doing “the job” on other girls, she “lit a candle.” 

Lucy is one of her best friends. She is large-breasted, a typical Italian girl, but has very wide genitalia, for lack of a better description. Local guys all complain that she is “too big down there,” and this reputation follows her around. She is unable to achieve pleasure with one notable exception: Sonny Corleone is so huge he fills her up with orgasmic ecstasy. Other girls are too tight to receive him.

The film demonstrates that Vito Corleone is nearly shot to death after his normal body guard, Paulie Gatto, calls in sick, leaving the job to The Don’s friendly but weak-witted son Fredo. After the shooting, in the film Sonny seems to know without much explanation that Paulie “sold out the old man.”

The novel explains Paulie’s motivation. It was pure jealousy. He grows up with Michael and is his friend, but secretly envies the fact Michael is a member of a powerful family. He will never rise to the heights of The Don’s sons. He will always be just a “soldier.” This is essentially why he agrees to cooperate with Virgil Solozzo, who orders the assassination of The Godfather after he refuses to fund his burgeoning opium business. This is an  important lesson for young Michael, who realizes because of this that his families’ business is baaed on money, not loyalty. Only blood remains truly loyal. This is why it is such a tragedy when Fredo works against Michael, and Michael kills his only remaining blood brother.

Much of the novel reads as a tutorial about organized crime. For instance, Puzo describes a local family that literally specializes in being held hostage during negotiations. Only briefly referenced in the movie, they are explained in the book in great detail, from origin story to their functional role during negotiations after the war begins, with the attempt on The Don’s life followed by Michael’s assassination of Solozzo and Captain Mark McCluskey. McCluskey is explained, as well; how he went from an honest cop to being on the take, mainly to finance the college education of his kids.

Apparently, one of the key concessions made by The Godfather’s producer, Al Ruddy, to Joe Colombo and organized crime, was agreeing to reduce the role of Fontane to two scenes in the film. Fontane is one of the most fascinating characters in the novel. There is absolutely no question that a future movie or, better yet, a mini-series could be filmed based strictly on what was written about Johnny Fontane in the book, but left out of the movie.

Fontane is a local kid, friends with the Corleone children, who does low level work for Vito. When he asks to be given more dangerous assignments, Vito seems prescient, telling him it is not his destiny to do this kind of work because he is “an artist.”

A bar singer, he quickly ascends to stardom. He marries his childhood sweetheart and has a family he loves. He is a good-hearted Italian boy, embarrassed to be the love interest of so many young girls. Fame swallows him up.

He moves to Hollywood where he becomes a movie star in addition to his singing career, which is in deep trouble due to a throat infection caused by too much booze and cigarettes. He becomes swept up in fame, divorcing his wife and marrying a beautiful movie star based on Ava Gardner. This is where the novel becomes lurid to the point of pornography.

Johnny’s wife sleeps with every guy in town. Of course Johnny sleeps with every girl in town, too. In one scene, that no doubt rankled Sinatra, Johnny gets raving drunk waiting for his wife to return from a night of wanton sex. She finally strolls through the door around four A.M. only to be met by her drunken husband, who threatens her with violence. Instead of cowering in fear, she laughs at him, saying he still makes love “like a teenage boy,” like all Italians. Johnny raises his fist and she begs him not to hit her in the face because she is doing a film shoot the next day, so he lands a few lame punches to her arms. She laughs and goes to bed while Johnny slumps, a beaten man.

After he divorces her, Johnny invites his friend from the old neighborhood, Nino Valenti, to join him in Hollywood. Nino is a fellow singer, very talented but just not quite as good as Johnny. They grew up bangin’ broads and pick right up in Los Angeles. Nino drove a truck for Don Corleone, and when he wanted more “heavy” work, The Don tells him as he told Johnny that his destiny is to be “an artist.”

In fact, just a simple mention of Nino by The Don motivates Johnny to invite his old friend to the West Coast. Johnny is amazed at how The Don is able to orchestrate events without even asking. He seems a puppet master.

Johnny invites Nino to a party arranged weekly by Jack Woltz, a kind of “lonely heart’s club.” At this party, held in a swank Hollywood Hills home, beautiful actresses and handsome actors gather for drinks and a “screening” of a movie. In fact, once the lights go down, the men and women pair up and engage in what becomes orgiastic sex. There is lesbianism, homosexuality and bi-sexuality. Nino is offered up to an actress named Deanna Dunn, a sweetheart of the silver screen but a depraved pervert off it. She thanks Johnny for bringing “a real man” to the party. Johnny, she says, is the only “real man” in Hollywood, a town of “fags” who cannot get it up, much less satisfy a woman like her. She devours Nino in oral sex. Nino is able to satisfy several other women at the event, as well. Johnny avoids the action; this is for Nino. 

When the lights go on Deanna expects Nino to practically genuflect over having sex with such a beautiful star, but he plays it like he is in the old neighborhood. Deanna is rebuffed and says, “Don’t pretend you weren’t turned on. You were as big as a house.”

Further playing on the Fontane-as-Sinatra theme, Fontane wins the Academy Award for his role in Jack Woltz’s war epic. The post-Oscar party becomes an orgy. Nino attends but does not drink or fool around. He must protect Johnny, who becomes falling down drunk and is displayed before all the girls for sex all night, including with the female Best Actress winner, who cannot get enough. Too drunk to perform, Johnny collapses and is carried out by Nino, who decides, “If this is what success looks like, I don’t want it.”

But the Oscar vaults Fontane in Hollywood and he becomes a producer. He hires a man who had been blacklisted for Communist affiliations, and demonstrates surprising skill as an artist and businessman, producing several hit movies. He hires Nino to essentially “play yourself.” In this role, Nino is a natural, an Italian galoot who can sing. Women go crazy over him and he becomes a star himself.

Eventually Michael, by this time head of the Corleone family, convinces Johnny to perform at casinos they own along with other friends from the movies. He and Nino become a popular stage act in Las Vegas (the “Rat Pack”), but both drink to such excess that their health goes bad. Nino eventually drinks himself to death, seemingly on purpose. Despite everything he has a deep-seated resentment of Johnny Fontane, first for achieving success on his own, then for propping him up and being the reason Nino succeeded after all. 

It is in Las Vegas where Lucy Mancini re-enters the novel. After college she is invited by Johnny, an old neighborhood friend, to work at one of Fredo Corleone’s casinos. She proves to be smart and hard-working, rising up quickly through the ranks.

Privately, she remains unfulfilled. When she occasionally goes on dates, the Vegas men, just like the old neighborhood guys, say she is “too big down there.” Then she meets Jules Segal, a handsome young doctor from Los Angeles. Jules has been kicked out of L.A. for performing abortions and has been hired by the Corleone family to perform abortions on the showgirls who constantly show up pregnant. He is also skilled at plastic surgery, enhancing many a girl’s breasts, tightening their bodies, and making them look younger.

Lucy agrees to go on a date with Jules, but does not sleep with him. Jules is intrigued and wonders why she will not have sex. He pursues her and finally they do. Lucy cries because she knows Jules must be disappointed at her size, but he just laughs. Lucy thinks he is laughing at her, but he just remarks that he is laughing at how Lucy is still living in the 18th Century when modern medicine can let her live in the 20th.

He does surgery, tightening her genitalia, and after a proper amount of time to recover, is ready to “test out my handiwork.” Voila, Lucy is as tight as drum and suddenly discovers the joys of sex. They fall madly in love. 

The novel also explains the back story of Al Neri, a corrupt cop who agrees to switch sides in the crime game, as well as numerous other key characters. Reading Puzo’s book is essential to a full understanding of The Godfather epic. 

Steven Travers is a former Hollywood screenwriter who has authored over 30 books including the brand new Best Sports Writing Ever and Coppola’s Monster Film: The Making of Apocalypse Now (2016). One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game That Changed a Nation (2007) is currently under film development. He is a USC graduate and attorney with a Ph.D who taught at USC and attended the UCLA Writers’ Program. He played professional baseball, served in the Army JAG corps in D.C., was in investment banking on Wall Street, worked in politics, lived in Europe, and was a sports agent before finding his calling as a writer. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, L.A. Times, StreetZebra, Gentry magazine, Newsmax and MichaelSavage.com. He lives in California and has one daughter, Elizabeth. He can be reached at USCSTEVE1@aol.com or on Twitter @STWRITES.

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